Economist David Galenson of the University of Chicago has published several books and countless papers on the genesis of creativity. Odd business for an economist, you might say, but his research is largely based on exhaustive research into the number of times certain works of art are published in art books, mentioned by critics, or have achieved high prices at auctions. His conclusions include the startling finding that some of the great artists peak early, while others don’t do their best till later on. We are of two main types, he says. Some are quick and dramatic, what he calls conceptual innovators. Others are slow and plodding, what he calls experimental innovators. Picasso is of the first type, producing his best and most important work before the age of thirty. Cezanne is of the latter — steady growth and refinement until his best work comes late in life.
This is, of course, like reinventing the wheel — even if it has a few flat sides. Basing creative greatness on the vagaries of fashionable criticism, publication frequency, or even prices achieved, is so loaded with potholes that it’s hardly worth driving there. What to do with Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who died in 1912 one of the highest paid painters of all time, but who now hardly appears on the radar. Or Maxfield Parrish who in his time sold almost as many photo-lithos as Thomas Kinkade. Or Mark Rothko, whose high prices, drooling critiques and popular acclaim seem to be due to a few dealers and critics who took control and had a run with a goodly supply of his work after he had gone to the big studio in the sky.
Galenson’s research does give some condolence to those late bloomers who finally get it. He also shakes up the notion that genius is a youth thing where the likes of Mozart can knock off a small bagatelle at age four months. Through all the misinformation and self-perpetuating myth, the mystery of creativity further deepens. “Many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first,” says the New Testament. I rather like the idea of an Artists’ Pearly Gates where a clear thinking and unsullied St. Peter-like character evaluates incoming artists according to quality, craftsmanship, joy, wonder, imagination, taste, content, etc., and their ability not to privately bore people. A lot of the truly bad, I’m sorry to say, might just have to be punished. But then again, only an economist or a fool could say who those might be.
PS: “Applying the fiercely analytic, quantitative tools of modern economics, Galenson has reverse engineered ingenuity to reveal the source code of the creative mind.” (Daniel H. Pink)
Esoterica: Cezanne did not preconceive his work, but rather let the painting-in-progress tell him what it needed. He took a long time, was always dissatisfied, and bloomed late. The highest prices for Cezanne’s paintings are from the year he died. He’s the third most illustrated French artist of the Twentieth Century. Of all his reproduced and celebrated images, only 2% are from his twenties. By far the most popular are from when he was an “old man.” Less than ten percent of Cezanne’s works are actually signed. Picasso signed everything, including the tablecloth.
Economist David Galenson’s books on the genesis of creativity:
Old Masters and Young Geniuses: The Two Life Cycles of Artistic Creativity (Can one be both conceptual and experimental? Can artists reinvent themselves?)
Painting outside the Lines (Two kinds of artistic behavior have been enacted by modern artists since the impressionists: the conceptualists, whose work matures early, and the experimentalists, whose work comes to fruition late.)
Artistic Capital (At what stage of their careers do great artists produce their most important work?)
by Cindy Sturla, Winter Springs, FL, USA
There are a lot of us late bloomers out here who have lived life and are now giving back a harvest of our life in our art, in our passion, our perspective, our wisdom. We’re at a different point in our lives and for that we find great fulfillment. We are so happy to have this opportunity and be able to share it with so many others. It’s a true gift that only a late bloomer can really appreciate.
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
The danger of early success is that young artists are seduced into simply copying themselves for the rest of their lives. My early style was random and experimental and went in twenty different directions at once. I seem to be getting better at what I do, but maybe I’m just better at pleasing myself. Still, I look forward to seeing the paintings I’ll do tomorrow, and next year, and ten years from now. Every one is always a surprise. If I am judged a bad artist at the pearly gates, my worst punishment would be to be compelled to paint the same painting over and over — torture!
Creative questions answered
by Walter Hawn, Casper, WY, USA
There may be holes in David Galenson’s “Theory of Creativity,” but that’s not a serious issue with me. In his explanation, I found an answer to much that has perplexed me about my creative life over the last many years. Always, I was told I had to plan, to have a vision, then realize that vision. I couldn’t then and I can’t now. Always it has been that, what I do, I do to discover what I’m doing, and that has always left me feeling a little unenlightened.
Now I know why I grope toward perfecting an image, step by stumbling step; why the slick do-this-then-do-that technique articles do nothing (well, very little) at all for me. Turns out I am an experimental innovator. I’m a tortoise with no hair.
Recognition and the new technology
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
The studies that you mention seem to use “being publicly noticed” as one of the units of measure for the “blooming.” I wonder how that holds up with the boom of Internet, MySpace and reality-show-type communication. I wonder if the geniuses of today and tomorrow will be able to break through this enormous level of noise. Can someone today really globally measure the number of publications? I suspect that they rely on samples with diminishing validity. Perhaps the next creative genius will find an ingenious way to break through the “noise.”
by Sandra Chantry, Loughborough, UK
Whilst I do so agree with what you say about early and late bloomers, I feel you could have mentioned those so-called ‘patrons’ who, driven by greed, take artists and force them in artificial conditions in order to make large amounts of cash without any care or thought for the outcome either of the artist, the market, or any normal definitions of merit. The artists they take and milk rarely achieve their full potential because they fall into the trap of easy money and self satisfaction at having been ‘recognized’ by the great and powerful.
Inspiration through discipline
by Beverly Claridge, Invercargill, New Zealand
I sincerely believe I would not have produced as many truly satisfying artworks when I was younger. It may simply be a function of the rewards of consistently producing and completing more artwork. When I was younger, I always thought I couldn’t create art unless I was “inspired.” Now, I’ve found inspiration is a byproduct of discipline… simply getting up everyday and planning, plotting, sketching, setting up or actually applying paint to a painting. I must do something toward this process everyday. The inspiration does come in snippets during this process of discipline. I’ve grown to not take myself too seriously, but take my painting quite seriously.
by Clint Watson, San Antonio, TX, USA
Galenson is quick to point out that the Experimentalists were people who always believed in their work and focused on it over a lifetime. His point was similar to your message a few weeks ago in The mother of all tips whereby artists sometimes confuse interest with aptitude. Indeed, only those older artists with both interest and aptitude (and I would add self-discipline) perhaps progress to the level of ‘genius.’
However, we’ve all been envious of those young, early twenty-somethings who seemingly have it all. Think of discoveries of artists like Daniel Gerhartz, Morgan Weistling, and Jeremy Lipking. While I wish them all well, it is encouraging to know that there is still hope for the rest of us. Now all the rest of us have to do is just not die before we reach our creative genius peaks…
Creating from within
by Toni Ciserella, Richfield, UT, USA
I am definitely slow and plodding but interspersed with moments of instant brevity. When I began drawing and being creative, I did so with no knowledge of design, composition, value, shape, line, etc., and felt as if my work came from somewhere outside myself. I wonder often if I should have forgone book learnin’ and just created from within.
Painting is like algebra to me. If I study, inevitably I end up with the wrong answer. I work so long on getting all the factors correct that my painting ends up boring and contrived. When I just let it happen, I get the right answer. I believe those artists, who created their best work when young, did so because they didn’t know any better. Then, when they studied to create a great work, they got caught up on working through the formulas. Those who created great work later in life were those who studied and figured out all the factors to make great art.
Issues on modernism
by Loraine Stephanson, Penticton, BC, Canada
For a brief and obvious example of why it’s best not to venture into art historical revisionism unless you are an expert, Picasso painted Guernica in 1937, long after he was thirty years of age. Other acknowledged masterpieces and groundbreaking artistic ventures followed.
I also take issue with your glib assessment of the work of Mark Rothko. The cavalier dismissal of Rothko in the same context as Maxfield Parrish displays an astonishing disregard for centuries of aesthetic discourse. On what do you base your critique of Rothko’s paintings? It may be very au courant to trash the masters of modernism these days, but that’s no excuse for unsubstantiated commentary.
(RG note) Thanks, Loraine. In his excellent critique of Galenson’s theories, Daniel H. Pink notes that Picasso, among others, does not always fit the stereotypes. As a matter of fact he points out that Galenson’s theories are full of holes. Regarding Rothko, there’s the valuable The Legacy of Mark Rothko by Lee Seldes that gives an understanding what can happen to an artist’s mystique… to say nothing of his prices, when critics and dealers team up.
Testing societal standards of value
by David Wayne Wilson, White Rock, BC, Canada
These standards of creative holiness are subjectively determined. Craftsmanship, it could be argued, is straightforward, and obvious to many. But quality, joy, wonder, imagination, taste, and content are matters of opinion. It appears to me that only tawdry and tamed imagination, supportive of conventional and conservative mores, is even looked at by galleries. There are no galleries who would show a Bosch these days, if his name wasn’t established. Taste is that pseudo-radical placebo deigned to vilify the elite and bury the common. Content: when will that appear in a North American gallery, never mind Artists’ Heaven? One man’s joy/wonder is another’s monotony. Quality, undefined, is a ruse precept without substance. The only art that will ever get by that St. Peter-type character is art that duly reflects and extends the reality of its source, irrespective of these market / consumer-defined deities: quality, taste, content. The extraordinary Dali was so successful in the early part of his reign because he allowed for his idiosyncrasies and personal joys. He recognized and entertained the surrealist freedoms. Obscenities, indecencies, and vanities will not be precluded at that Holy Gate. Niceties, however, do worse than privately bore. They will be hanging on the walls of Hell by the millions, boring Satan himself to death!
Series of 100
by Marsha Stopa, Ferndale, MI, USA
I enjoy the concept that small, inconsequential works have value. I often forget this in the quest to learn and “make art.” I proposed to my art group the idea of committing to making 100 of something. I’ve seen the idea of making 100 mentioned in several books as a means to thoroughly learn a technique or get immersed in the process of an idea — explore it, work it through to exhaustion, carry it to success and beyond to new ideas never imagined. I offered the challenge as being about process, not about product. There were no stipulations to time, deadlines, medium, size, quality, etc.
Wow! What a tempest this 100-thing idea created! One thought a series of 10 was enough. Another balked at any kind of limits and requirements placed on her art, saying she didn’t want anyone to tell her what to paint — even herself. Another artist saw the idea as a way of being “forced” to explore new frontiers. Several said, “Oh, I’ve already done that.” Another refuses to consider it. They are starting to warm up to the idea, but it’s taking a while.
Have you ever set out to specifically create a group of 100?
(RG note) Thanks, Marsha. Yes, I have, and sometimes, I’ve made it. One hundred comes up often when I tell young artists to go and paint 100 paintings and then give me a call. Some do — others I never hear from again.
by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, HI, USA
Recently I read Earth Colors by Sarah Andrews. It’s ostensibly a murder mystery, with the protagonist a geologist who needs forensic skills to solve it. She does so in the most interesting manner — by analyzing an old Remington. I mention it because there are some really deep discussions of color, color theory and paint origins that I hadn’t known before. She weaves them into the storyline so well it isn’t boring or too scholarly for the novel.
She gives homage to a color we rarely, if ever, see anymore — Hooker’s Green. It was a lovely color, with a depth and ability to catch the realities of green we can’t get nowadays without a lot of trouble, it seems, even with the newer (pthalo) colors that have come out since lead was banned from our palettes. If you look at a lot of the older New Mexico artists’ work, you’ll see it in the sunset skies, long-view horizon scenes, and faces of Indians and cowboys, especially night-time scenes.
Can you suggest any alternatives you might have come up with that might be good substitutes for Hooker’s Green? I’ve tried Prussian blue with Naples yellow with some success.
(RG note) Thanks, Angela. In acrylic, Jenkins Green is the popular replacement for the toxic Hooker’s. Various other manufacturers in both oil and acrylic offer similar greens that have Phthalo blue or Phthalo green as their base. I find a most useful colour to add to any green is Cadmium Orange. Quinacridone Gold is another warming alternate. Greens work well when warmed with transparent warm colours generally — which can be enhanced with the use of plenty of medium. Various dull greens, such as Liquitex’s Hookers Green Permanent Hue, are not, in my books, true Hooker’s and are more difficult to work with.
by Ursula Kirchner, Germany
The first portion of my life was spent bringing up children and coping with the difficulties of after-war Germany. Residing in an apartment of 35 square meters, without a bathroom or a washing machine or a refrigerator, I should have loved to study fine arts. However, this was just a dream. How necessary is art anyway? “We don’t need art; we need potatoes.”
During the seventies, when the children had all grown up, I experimented with all sorts of things, then gave up everything else and took up papercutting, which I had done in my childhood. Papercutting is a sort of sideline and many people don’t consider it as a real art. Although, Matisse, when he wasn’t able to paint any longer, did make big cut-outs in his death-bed and created a new line of art. Ten years ago, we founded a German guild of papercutters, which has grown to include 350 members. As well, we meet and invite American artists from the American Guild of Papercutters. In France, the Impressionists had a papercutting guild that proved to be very successful in making its artists known.
by Candy Law, Berkley, MI, USA
I am now beginning to take on documenting my work seriously and am in the process of having digital images taken of everything remotely worthwhile, completed or not. Recently, I’ve been accepted into enough juried shows that it behooves me to keep track of what has been entered, where, and when. Working Artist software for PCs I have found to be extremely useful. I can keep track of prices, sizes, what is (or was) where, thumbnails, and much more.
Puget Sound Concession
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Brian Jones of Cortaro, AZ, USA who wrote, “If good things come to those who wait, I figure I ought to be in for a big payoff someday soon!”
And also Haley Pritchard who wrote, “Your thoughtful musings bring me a smile.”
And also Sharon McAuliffe who wrote, “Better to bloom late in life than to not bloom at all… to dry up as a bud and never release what has been hidden.”
And also Kirk Wassell of Chino Hills, CA, USA who wrote, “I greatly appreciate your style of presenting an idea so seemingly uncolored that it literally cleanses the mind. In a Buddhist fashion, I often find the experience of letting your letters go through me to be most rewarding and refreshing.”
And also Marina Morgan who wrote, “Perhaps creativity is unchanged from birth. Its exposure may be the variable — based upon temerity and triggering circumstance, which may come late or not at all.”
And also Lilian Valladares of Switzerland who wrote, “What lucky guys we are, having such individual writing to us, serious things, with such importance to be read — an artist without the obscure common behavior of artists — and this among all junk stuff received everyday in the inbox.”